Love at First Sight
One look at the stunning Federal-period house in Kinderhook — with its enchanting
gardens — and David and Vicki Smith knew they had to have it
By Ann Morrow
Photographs by Randall Perry
I bought a house, and I got a botanical garden with it,” says David Smith, happily referring to the Federal-era house he and his wife, Vicki, moved into last winter. A stately member of the collection of historic houses that line Broad Street in the village of Kinderhook, Columbia County, the Smiths’ new home is surrounded by enchanting gardens stocked with exceptional specimens. Between the side drive and the meadow-sized backyard is an oasis of exotic peonies where the Smiths, who are both avid gardeners, delight in pointing out various deeply hued flowers. No better explanation is needed as to why the couple moved to Kinderhook on a whim. Longtime residents of Westchester County, they were charmed by glimpses of the house and gardens that they caught while driving past it last year.
But as impressive as the grounds are — especially the lush border garden that winds along the property’s nearly two acres — they don’t upstage the house, a graceful example of a late-Federal, center-hall residence with the neoclassical addition of a columned front portico. “I never imagined I would buy a house after just one visit, especially a house like this one,” says David. Even though he works for an investment management firm in
Constructed sometime in the 1820s or ’30s (the builder is unknown), the clapboard house slowly expanded westward. In the 19th century, a rear wing was added, followed by a side porch that was later enclosed. In the mid 20th century, a garage was built between the rear exterior and an old barn. The picturesque red barn, explains David, was once for stabling horses.
Although its setting, complete with storybook arbors, is bucolic by today’s standards, the house was not a farmhouse. It was built to be close to the main road of commerce. Its first recorded resident was a hat manufacturer and merchant named Richard Graves. Since then, the structure has had many owners, and has been mostly fortunate in the changes and renovations that have occurred over the generations. “For all its historical charm, it remains very much a home in which a family can comfortably live,” says David, who is transforming the rough-hewn basement into a state-of-the-art media room.
Historian, author, and antiques expert Roderic Blackburn, who lives nearby, says the most notable aspect of the Smiths’ house is the symmetry and proportions of its design. (One example of the house’s symmetry is how the rectangular fanlight and sidelights of the doorway are echoed in two large windows at the front and back of the upstairs hallway.) Like the other houses of Broad Street — which include the James Vanderpoel house museum — “it’s larger and of higher quality than many houses in this style in other parts of the country, reflecting the affluence of the village,” says Blackburn, who also mentions that the previous owners did “a commendable job of replacing the details of the woodwork.” These classic Federal details include geometric moldings, pilasters, and window frames, along with customized cabinetry and exactingly fabricated sections of the elegant balustrades. Perhaps because he’s a pianist and musicologist (with advanced music degrees from Harvard and Yale), Smith says the harmony, balance, and precise lines of Federal design have a distinct appeal for him.
The Smiths were so pleased with the traditional paint choices of the previous owners — weekenders who sold the house after a year — that they left them unchanged. In true Federal fashion, the front door is red and the front hallway is yellow. The parlor is royal blue, a perfect match for the couple’s Sheraton-style sofa. “Our stuff fit so well in a Federal house, it astonished us,” says Vicki, who adds that they spent 18 years in their previous home, a Tudor in New Rochelle. David recalls that even the movers asked if they “bought all this stuff for this house.” A meticulously restored art-case Steinway piano, elaborately crafted from primavera wood from South America, sits in front of a bay window that appears to have been built especially for it. Contrasting with the blue walls is a collection of etched red-glass souvenir pieces, inherited from David’s mother.
Other prized possessions that look uncannily appropriate for their new home include an 1890 oil painting of Lake George, purchased from an Albany art shop by a maternal forebear; several early-1800s furnishings from Rensselaer County (David is from Troy; his mother, Elva, was a president of the Rensselaer County Historical Society), and, especially, the dining room set passed down from his grandfather.
David describes the circa-1930s dining table, serpentine sideboard, and small buffet as Williamsburg Revival, made by the Kittinger Company in the Sheraton-Hepplewhite style. Around the dining table are eight stunning, antique beaded tiger maple side chairs. “I feel strongly that it’s okay to mix the genuinely old with very high-quality reproductions,” he says. Perfectly complementing his grandfather’s dining set and eagle-motif convex mirror is a reproduction Empire-style chandelier that David found in a local shop. “I love this period,” he says.
The Smiths’ describe their work on the house as fine-tuning. “We haven’t had any tremendous challenges, just a ton of little things,” says Vicki. They put new marble surrounds in the fireplaces, stripped and repainted the front door to reveal more detail, and are replacing the vertical boards on the breezeway with clapboard that matches the original house. But they’ve just begun their labor of true love: taming the overgrown landscaping. “There are hundreds and hundreds of plants,” says David. “Literally truckloads were brought to this property, whole nurseriesâ€¦ We’re revisiting all the plantings and doing major reallocations to make it work better,” adds Vicki. In between pruning sessions, she added a vegetable garden.
The landscaping was installed, at tremendous cost, by an owner from the early 1990s whom the Smiths refer to as “a banker from the South.” The border garden is lined with a low bluestone retaining wall that required 100 tons of rock to create. There are dozens of unusual types of hostas, Japanese tree peonies imported from Japan, exotic spruces, rare birches, and weeping white pines. The arbors are covered in different varieties of creeping hydrangeas and wisteria. An ancient redbud tree stands like a sentry in one of the glades. “They have one of the largest redbuds I’ve ever seen,” says Tom Butcher, a local arborist. “It’s gorgeous back there. What’s interesting is that the old trees were incorporated into new landscaping. That’s something that you don’t see very often. The new birches match the old birches in the front.”
To maintain the plantings, the banker installed a computerized, 16-zone sprinkling system. When the village implemented water restrictions, he drilled his own well. At more than 700 feet, it’s one of the deepest in the county. “The well supplies an 1,800-gallon underground tank,” marvels David. “It’s a totally self-sufficient irrigation system.”
For the formal front drive, the banker had the concrete acid-stained a darker color to suit his fancy. He enjoyed the house for only a few years before moving on.
David says that buying a house in Kinderhook was a “romantic notion” inspired by his heritage: his lineage in the Hudson Valley dates to 1726, when his ancestor, Zacharias Schmidt, emigrated from Germany to “America’s Rhine” and settled in Tarrytown. As David’s mother was nearing the end of her life, he says, he traveled often from New Rochelle to Troy. “As I began to do more of my family’s genealogy, it occurred to me that I was driving through my own history, because my ancestors — the Smith line — arrived in Westchester in 1726, and they worked their way up through many communities, Germantown, Hillsdale, Claverack, into the Nassau-Schodack area, and eventually into Troy.” Except for his great-great-great uncle Ezra Ames, the famed colonial-Albany portraitist, Smith’s forbears were farmers. “My guess is they moved up the Valley to acquire more land. About 1848, they moved into Troy and became merchants. It’s almost like the story of America,” he continues. “Farmers to merchants to professional class. The professional was my grandfather, who became an attorney about 1905.”
During his drives back and forth, David began to daydream about “moving up the Valley.” The dream came true when he noticed on the Internet that the Broad Street house they’d been struck by was for sale. For Vicki, too, the move to Kinderhook is a return to her roots. Raised in a small town in Pennsylvania (the couple met at Harvard), she has a deep appreciation for the small-town way of life offered by the village. “It’s warm and welcoming here,” she says. “We like having neighbors.” And the neighbors like having full-time homeowners around. Says David: “We’ve been told we’re bringing new life to the house.”